Revisiting the Crisis in Burma and Buddhism’s Role in it

By Justin Whitaker

As violence has flared up again in Burma (Myanmar) this month, the word that most aptly describes the situation is: complex. News headlines might suggest otherwise, pointing a finger squarely at the nominal leader of Burma and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, or to the Burmese military. World religious leaders including the Pope, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama have all spoken out in favor of the ethnic minority group, the Rohingya, who also happen to be mostly Muslim in a nation that is 90% Buddhist.

Concerning Suu Kyi, British journalist George Monbiot puts it most directly:

By any standards, the treatment of the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, is repugnant. By the standards Aung San Suu Kyi came to symbolise, it is grotesque. They have been described by the UN as “the world’s most persecuted minority”, a status that has not changed since she took office.

The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide describes five acts, any one of which, when “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, amounts to genocide. With the obvious and often explicit purpose of destroying this group, four of them have been practised more or less continuously by Myanmar’s armed forces since Aung San Suu Kyi became de facto political leader. (Guardian)

Monboit points to a detailed, 43 page UN report on the situation, released in February of this year. He also points to an Amnesty International dossier published in December 2016, this one 60 pages long. Human Rights Watch has also devoted extensive coverage to the plight of the Rohingya in Burma. I point to these three international organizations because they all provide a roughly objective view of events in Burma. None has a stake in presenting one nation or one religion favorably or unfavorably.

Levels of Complexity: the facts on the ground

Rohingya Muslims are fleeing Burma. More than 300,000 by most estimates. That number is staggering given the population of Burma of around 50 million people. It is also staggering because these people are not leaving by plane or car, but on overcrowded boats and on foot crossing a river into neighboring Bangladesh. According to reports such as the UN one (see below), the central cause of this is widespread indiscriminate killing of Rohingya by Burmese military forces; methods including the use of helicopters, guns, grenades, stabbing, and burning civilians to death.

A Rohingya Muslim man who fled Myanmar to Bangladesh to escape religious violence, cries as he pleads from a boat after he and others were intercepted by Bangladeshi border authorities in Taknaf, Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Anurup Titu)

It is also clear that there is a small armed insurgency of Rohingya who have killed Burmese security forces in the past weeks, which is largely to blame for the recent military action (though it in no way excuses the size and indiscriminate nature of that action).

Aung San Suu Kyi

By Foreign and Commonwealth Office | CC BY 2.0

Aung San Suu Kyi is heralded as a hero by many around the world after her long non-violent struggle against Burma’s military dictatorship. In 2010, she was released from nearly two decades of on-again, off-again house arrest. When the country began its nominal transition to a democracy in 2012 she began a quick rise up the ladder of political leadership in the country. She is the head of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which now controls a majority of the seats in Burma’s governmental houses. She was, however, constitutionally barred from becoming the country’s president by the out-going military powers. So today she has widespread moral support and democratic power in Burma.

The Military: Tatmadaw

What is not clear is just how much Aung San Suu Kyi’s power counts for. The military, known as the Tatmadaw, has played a strong role since its independence from the United Kingdom in 1948, ultimately seizing control of the government in 1962. A 2014 study done by the nonprofit, nonpartisan International Republican Institute showed that the military was the second most favorable institution in the country, with 89% of respondents rating them as “favorable” or “very favorable.” Political parties as a whole ranked last in that survey with 59% total favorability and corruption within political parties, including the NDL was seen as somewhat or very prevalent by 75% of those asked.

Part of the Tatmadaw’s unique place is their ability, with force, to ensure peace. Civil wars have raged through the country since its independence in 1948, and early political alliances and peace agreements were often short-lived.

So it is possible that Suu Kyi legitimately feels constrained by current political uncertainty against speaking up for the Rohingyas. In 1990, the military showed its power over democracy by simply nullifying the national elections, leading to widespread protests and violence. It is also possible that Suu Kyi simply does not care much for Muslims; in 2016 she made a comment widely regarded as anti-Muslim after being asked about the Rohingya by a Muslim reporter from the BBC.

Mosque in Mandalay

Religion: Buddhists vs Muslims

This is at once the simplest aspect: nearly all Rohingya are Muslim and nearly all in the Burmese government and military are Buddhist; and also the most complex aspect: what role, if any, does religion actually play here?

In 2011, TIME magazine featured the popular Burmese monk Ashin Wirathu with the headline, “The face of Buddhist Terror.” Since then, Wirathu and fellow monks have compared Muslims to dogs, accused them of raping or marrying (to out-procreate) young Buddhist women, as well as other acts of violence. They have formed a movement based on Buddhist numerology, 969: referring to the virtues of the Buddha, the teachings, and the community.

Has Ashin Wirathu’s prominence diminished? Last month, Gavin Jacobson of the NY Review of Books, published a piece on him suggesting just the opposite. Despite his twisting of Buddhism toward hatred (or perhaps because of it), Wirathu resides over the largest monastery in Mandalay, the country’s ancient capital and second largest city.

Buddhist Fundamentalism

Insofar as these are “fundamental” aspects of Buddhism (the qualities of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) that are being intentionally harnessed for nationalist, xenophobic purposes, it seems fair to call this a case of “Buddhist Fundamentalism” in the same way that Christians, Hindus, or Muslims might twist fundamental teachings of their religion toward hatred and violence. Is this “true Buddhism”? No, of course not, not any more than ISIS is true Islam or the KKK is true Christianity.

To ignore the religious aspect of this violence as merely ethnic or merely nationalist is to place one’s head squarely in the sand. Just as moderates in each of those religions have been urged to speak out against their doctrines, Buddhists ought to similarly follow suit. Otherwise, the loudest voice, the only voice, heard by many will be that of the extremists: those who teach that Buddhism is under existential threat from Muslim foreigners.

Young monks studying near Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma)

For those in the West, this serves as a litmus test of sorts for underlying Islamophobia. Many of our white convert Buddhist friends may be peaceful, calm meditators with equanimity toward atheists, Christians, Jews and Hindus, but nonetheless harbor either suspicion toward Muslims or outright belief that their religion is uniquely violent. Popular liberal personalities such as Bill Maher and Sam Harris have done little to help this situation.

Alongside these views is quite often the faith that Buddhism is, in some way, unique in its peacefulness and non-violence. That faith is also shared by a fair number of non-Buddhists around the world. But it is a faith that will surely whither as monks like Wirathu overshadow teachers like the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh in the media and in our popular understanding.


George Monbiot in the Guardian, September 2017:

UN Report on Burma Violence, February 2017:

Click to access FlashReport3Feb2017.pdf

Amnesty International report on Rohingya Persecution in Myanmar, December 2016:

Human Rights Watch (Topic: Rohingya)

International Republican Institute, 2014 Burma Public Opinion:

Click to access 2014%20April%203%20Survey%20of%20Burma%20Public%20Opinion,%20December%2024,%202013-February%201,%202014.pdf

Aug San Suu Kyi, Anti-Muslim remark, 2016:

TIME magazine story on Ashin Wirathu:,9171,2146000,00.html

Gavin Jacobson, The Hateful Monk, NY Review of Books:

Buddhist Numerology and Violence in Burma, the Atlantic:

Recommended Reading

Some Statements or Initiatives by Buddhists to stop the violence